Liz O'Neill

This Saturday, 7 March, is the eighth anniversary of the death of a very dear friend of mine, Liz O'Neill. Liz was killed in the crash of Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She was posted to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2003 and unfortunately she was on that fateful flight that took a number of Australian and Indonesian lives as part of their service to their nation in supporting a ministerial visit.

Prior to her passing, Liz had experienced some real horrors in her life. She was involved in providing help to the families of those who were injured and killed in the Bali tragedies in 2002 and again in 2005. She worked to help keep peace in Bougainville and she died serving our country.

I would like to read some lines from her obituary to give you an idea about this wonderful woman, this woman who we so dearly miss, particularly at this time of the year, and who served our country so well. Liz was born in Brisbane to Lisa and Keith O'Neill. Her obituary said:

As the youngest of five children, she realised the importance of standing out from the crowd. Her opinions, like her life, were large and she was usually eager to air them …

She was a very opinionated young woman! It continued:

Her father, a soldier, left for Vietnam as commanding officer, 8th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, when O'Neill was eight months old. The army postings ended with the family settling in Sydney, where she attended school at Kincoppal, Rose Bay. She excelled academically and became an accomplished viola player and admirer of the early works of David Bowie … The family was devoutly Catholic and O'Neill developed a keen sense of social responsibility from her mother, who was committed to her local parish of St Canice's, Elizabeth Bay …

This is where Liz's memorial service was held. Her mother also worked, as it said in Liz's obituary, with the poor and homeless around Kings Cross. It went on:

O'Neill studied arts at Sydney University, at the same time working in a chocolate shop in Double Bay … Older sister Mary died of a brain aneurism during O'Neill's first year at university and, in many respects, a sadness hung over her studies. When she finished she worked for a Catholic refugee group and spent time in camps in Hong Kong. The reconnection with her church and the values of care, compassion and service drove her ultimate choice of career, after she earned a master's degree in communications at the University of Technology, Sydney.

She moved to Canberra, joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1994— which is when I met her— and was posted to Tokyo in 1996.

Liz O'Neill was an extraordinary woman and she typifies all the public servants who I knew over my decadelong career in the public service. Public servants are subject to much derision from all quarters of Australian life. I am always baffled as to why that is so. They are servants of democracy, they are people who have chosen a career to serve our nation, to serve others, and this typifies the public servants that I know. Like Liz, they are smart; like Liz, they are committed; like Liz, they are highly educated; like Liz, they are altruistic; like Liz, they are keen to make a difference and they are keen to serve our nation, be it here in Australia or be it overseas. Liz was always keen to serve our nation here, but she was particularly keen to advance and be an ambassador for Australia overseas. As I said, I met Liz in 1994 when she started working at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and she became a very close friend. Years later, my husband Chris and I were incredibly humbled to be asked to be the godparents of her daughter Lucinda.

In that flight, three other Australians were also killed. They were also public servants—Australian Federal Police officers Mark Scott and Brice Steele and an AusAID official, Allison Sudradjat. There was also a journalist from The Australian Financial Review, Morgan Mellish. As I said, these people were servants of democracy, they wanted to serve our nation overseas, they died in the best way possible in terms of giving back to their nation and serving the democratically elected representatives of our nation. May they rest in peace, we will remember them, and to my dear friend Lizzie, I miss you terribly.

Download a copy of this speech.

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